For whatever reason, many albums never saw the light of the day but acquired a legendary status anyway. The Eurythmics’ 1980s hit “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” may have been played so many times that it has turned into a nag, but it can also be taken as a designator of an often-repeating situation in rock music. Almost as soon as the album format became the dominating norm in rock, stories emerged about works in progress: those that were happening, those that would (or might) happen, and often those that were just a product of people’s imaginations.
It didn’t matter whether the interest was being stimulated with actual news and musical snippets that were prepared to further the possible sales, or whether the artists tried to do everything “in secret”. The news of possible “masterpieces” would spread like wildfire, even when the Internet was still a pipe dream. Most of the time, as is the case for example with the Beatles seminal Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, things would turn out for the best – the craving audience would hear the masterpiece, and the artists would garner fame and financial rewards.
Still, in many situations, things would not work out as planned. Some projects would simply not even get off the ground, while others would be fully finished, partially finished and re-worked later, or simply remain demos, with tapes collecting dust in some artist’s cellar or vault.
The reasons for such projects turning into ‘albums that never were’ range from inane to complex, from quarrels (and even physical fights) between musicians usually explained as “musical differences”, to drug overdoses, health problems, nervous breakdowns, to even “strange occurrences”. Anything and everything.
From the mid-’60s on, the list of such legendary projects kept growing, with names and stories of unissued albums that would have “changed the shape of rock” resurfacing on a regular basis, taking hold of the fans’ fancy, even if they turned out to be just a figment of somebody’s imagination. Still, there is proof that if some of these albums had appeared in their initial shape and form, they would have had a true impact on modern music. Here is a selected list of 10 such projects not only still discussed among the fans, but often recreated in some shape or form by the original artists, inspired musicians, or just hungry fans.
10. The Rolling Stones – Could You Walk on the Water?
Could You Walk on the Water? is one of the first legendary albums that never surfaced in its original form. Andrew Loog Oldham, the Stones’ manager in the mid-’60s, started pushing the band to start composing more of their own material in an attempt to come up with an album composed of only their songs. As was the case with many rock artists at the time, the Stones’ albums consisted mostly of rock and blues standards, while the original material was sprinkled throughout, concentrating on the singles.
While touring the US in late 1965, the band went into RCA Studios in Hollywood to record all new self-penned material. Within a week, they impressively came up with at least nine numbers, among which were later hits “Mother’s Little Helper” and “19th Nervous Breakdown”, as well as the track “Goin’ Home”, which ran for an unprecedented 11 minutes plus.
With the addition of “Lookin’ Tired”, an outtake recorded three months earlier, a 10-track album was being prepared for March 1966 release, titled Could You Walk on the Water? The problem arose when Decca Records objected vehemently at the title, supposedly stating that “We would not issue it with that title at any price!” Supposedly, the company thought that a big part of its US audience might feel it was against their religious beliefs. The pictures taken for the projected cover at a California reservoir were later used for Big Hits (High Tide and Green Grass), the compilation that was released instead of the projected album.
In the end, a piece of luck helped the band move on from the scrapped project. The same month that the album was to be released, the Stones re-entered the same studio and recorded another set of original titles – a full album of material, that among other songs included “Lady Jane”, “Out of Time”, “Paint It Black” and “Under My Thumb”. Combining the material from the two sessions, Aftermath was released in April and would go down as one of the best the Rolling Stones recorded, and certainly one of the best in rock history.
9. Prince and the Revolution – Dream Factory
Late musical mastermind Prince was certainly an iconic songwriter and producer with an exceptional ability to discover musical talent. During the peak period of his career (Purple Rain, Around the World in a Day, and Parade), a lot of that talent was gathered in his backing band, the Revolution.
In preparation for the follow-up album to that trio of works, Prince invited all the members, particularly Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman, to take part in the process. By spring of 1986, Prince prepared a rough cut of a single disc album comprised of 11 tracks entitled Dream Factory. While still working on other songs with Wendy and Lisa, Prince was tracking most of the instruments himself. A few months later, the material grew to a double album, with many tracks being discarded, but new intriguing ones like “Crystal Ball” being added to the tracklist. By July, Prince’s adding and discarding of tracks finalized with an album master.
During the ensuing tour, the existing Revolution band was expanded to include a full horn section and dancers. With core members of the band already worried they weren’t getting enough credit for their songwriting input, Prince’s decision-making caused a heightened questioning of his new musical direction. At the end of the tour, Prince promptly fired Melvoin and Coleman, with other members deciding to quit in support of the fired duo.
As a consequence, Dream Factory was shelved, and Prince began work on a solo concept album Camille, where he manipulated voice his to play the role of Camille herself. The supposed album was not even to be credited to Prince. Again, he changed his mind and scrapped the whole project. Later, combining material from the two projects, Prince prepared a triple-disc album that was to be titled Crystal Ball. By December of 1986, however, Warner Bros. rejected the album as too cumbersome and asked Prince to pair it down to a double album at most. Finally, the following year, Prince did come up with a double album, Sign O’ the Times, which is now considered by many his definite best.
8. The Doors – Celebration of the Lizard
After a brilliant start with The Doors and Strange Days, two albums that turned into instant classics upon their release in 1967, the Doors stopped their initial rapid fire of albums. Previously composed material allowed for those quick releases which kicked off their career. But when they entered the studio to record their third outing, they were faced with “a small” problem – no new material. Thus they had to write new songs on the spot, as often happened with rock bands in the late ’60s.
To resolve the situation, Jim Morrison offered a solution to base the album around a lengthy piece of poetry dear to his heart entitled “Celebration of the Lizard”. Comprised of seven sections, it was to occupy the entire side of the projected album. All was well until two problems arose. First off, album producer Paul Rothchild hated the idea and was pushing for a hit single. Although this probably could have been dealt with, a much bigger problem was the band’s inability to record the piece to their liking.
With recording sessions in full swing, the idea was finally abandoned, leaving a profound effect on Morrison, who was simply ambivalent and drunk most of the time during the recordings, and creating a definite rift between Morrison and the rest of the group. In the end, the fifth section of the projected piece was salvaged and turned into a song of its own, “Not to Touch the Earth”, which appeared on Waiting for the Sun, which did successfully release in 1968. Featuring opening track “Hello, I Love You”, Waiting for the Sun was the successful chart-topper the record execs wanted, while the Doors’ poetic piece was only available in live recordings until the 2003 compilation Legacy: The Absolute Best.
7. Nirvana – Sheep
As the ’80s turned into ’90s, Nirvana’s debut album Bleach, issued by then-very-indie Sub Pop Records, led to the Seattle group’s rising reputation as a brilliant live group capable of captivating a broader audience than their fellow grunge pioneers. In April of 1990, the trio entered the studio to start recording their road-tested and well-received new material. They recorded eight songs for a Sub Pop follow-up album that Kurt Cobain wanted to name Sheep, perhaps in reference to the pop-oriented audience it was to be aimed at. With two thirds of the album ready to go with a release planned for the end of the year, the whole thing suddenly fell through due to two things.
The first was Cobain and Krist Novoselic as the founders of the band decided to fire their then drummer Chad Channing, considering his playing “too hippy”. Of course, Dave Grohl would then replace him to finalize the iconic Nirvana lineup. The other problem was the fact that Sub Pop couldn’t (or didn’t want to) move away from their indie status, and the band decided that they had to sign to a major label. So instead of issuing Sheep as an album, they used the recorded tracks as a demo to get a major contract. The resulting album was none other than the groundbreaking Nevermind, which featured many re-recorded songs from the Sheep sessions, including “Lithium”, “Polly”, and “In Bloom”. Many of the original sessions can be found on the deluxe and super deluxe releases of Nevermind released in 2011.
6. The Who – Lifehouse
After the almost unexpected success of his rock opera Tommy, Pete Townshend of the Who tried to up the ante. He started planning another rock opera behemoth that was provisionally titled Lifehouse and was to be accompanied by a movie of its own and a live audience performance. Townshend envisioned it as a 20-song cycle that was to have an almost Matrix-like science fiction scenario, something that was probably too far out for the early 1970s.
As might have been expected at the time, Townshend had a hard time explaining the whole concept both to the band and to initial producer Kit Lambert. Lambert even started to incite a mutiny within the band, which in part led to Townshend suffering a nervous breakdown. Lambert was promptly fired, and the band hired Glyn Johns, whose first job was to review the recorded material. After listening to miles of tapes, Johns suggested that the band prune the material down to a single-disc, non-conceptual album.
What came out was none other than Who’s Next, one of the most iconic rock albums ever. Still, Townshend never gave up on the Lifehouse idea, continuing to release songs intended for the project which culminated in a live album released in 2000 titled Live: Sadler’s Wells.
5. The Velvet Underground – IV
By 1969, the Velvet Underground had morphed immensely from the groundbreaking and inspiring sounds of their debut The Velvet Underground & Nico, and even moreso from the true punk of the follow-up White Light/White Heat. When John Cale left the band, his replacement Doug Yule pushed the group into more melody-oriented songwriting. While the resulting self-titled third album was critically acclaimed, it suffered commercially.
Due to the underperformance, their brewing rift with Verve/MGM Records further deepened. The band took to touring, while still recording material and searching for a new label all at the same time. During May of that year, the band started recording in earnest, putting together songs like “Coney Island Steeplechase” and “Andy’s Chest”, a song Lou Reed re-recorded for his 1972 classic Transformer. Two other songs were recorded during these sessions that also found their place on later albums by Reed and the Underground – “She’s My Best Friend” and the seminal “Rock and Roll”.
Other recordings were made in the autumn of that year, including another song that later re-appeared titled “Ride Unto the Sun”. Despite the output, the band had different opinions on the direction and purpose of these recordings. Reed and Mo Tucker expressed intent to release the band’s fourth album. Om the other hand, Doug Yule thought they were to be professional demos for the Loaded album. Additionally, Sterling Morrison believed they were just a cover-up to sell MGM while they were in a search of a new deal.
In the end, the nearly forgotten tapes (along with a few unreleased tracks from the John Cale era in 1968) were remixed and bundled as a compilation album titled VU in 1985, which proved to be the first true commercial success the Velvet Underground experienced.
4. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young – Human Highway
This unreleased album will probably go down as one of the most “on again, off again” works by a high-profile group in rock history. After hugely successful albums by Crosby, Stills & Nash, and the even more successful Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young album Deja Vu, the four members’ egos led to fallout as early as 1970. But just as soon as the breakup occurred, reunion rumors were in the air.
In 1973, all four members gathered at Neil Young’s Broken Arrow Studios in Hawaii and started recording material for a new album with the working title Human Highway. Almost as soon as the recordings started, egos flared up again and the project was abandoned, with Graham Nash re-recording his three contributions (“Prison Song”, And So It Goes”, and “Another Sleep Song”) for his Wild Tales album.
A year later, yet another reunion was in the works. This time, CSNY reunited for live shows, during which they played a number of songs that were projected for the abandoned album. This prompted another attempt at recording Human Highway, yet again with no success. All four members later used the already-conceived songs intended for the album in their solo (or duo) projects, from Wind in the Water through Stills to Zuma.
Later, the group split into two working duos – Crosby and Nash, and Stills and Young who started recording what eventually became the album Long May You Run. At some point, Neil Young invited Crosby and Nash to add their vocals to the already recorded material for the album and even develop new material and re-record some songs intended for the Human Highway album, including the title track. In the end, that material was scrapped, and all Crosby and Nash vocals were erased for reasons unknown to this day. In the end, the album came out solely as a Stills-Young Band affair.
3. The Beatles – Get Back
When the Beatles’ masterful White Album came out, it evidenced the fact that the band was beginning to splinter. By January 1969, the band decided to make an attempt to revive their relationship and musical catharsis by recording an album that hoped to recapture the youthful spirit they once flourished in.
The project provisionally titled Get Back, was originally to be recorded entirely live with no overdubs. Unfortunately, the distrust and disinterest in each other’s songs resulted in very sloppy performances. After a full month of failed attempts, the band gave up on the idea and went on to record yet another masterpiece, Abbey Road.
Producer Glyn Johns though did not give up on the initial project, and later that year he came up with a rough version of the album. However, his efforts failed due to poor production choices and incoherent track sequencing. Another version was set up next year, which included re-recorded versions of “I Me Mine” and an old version of “Across the Universe”. That version too was scrapped, with the Fab Four instead turning to the towering character of Phil Spector. Of course, Spector couldn’t do without overdubs, and he also inexplicably excluded a version of “Don’t Let Me Down”.
Finally, in 2003, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr approved a Get Back album re-working, released as Let It Be…Naked. While this release was the closest to the Beatles’ initial intentions, it still left a lot to be desired, with good humor and spirit audibly missing.
2. Bob Dylan – Big Pink
Sure, every music fan is aware and probably has at least one version of Bob Dylan and the Band’s indispensable The Basement Tapes, a voluminous set of practically demo recordings that by themselves started the bootleg craze. Even as such, and as any version that reached a wider audience, The Basement Tapes were never properly prepared and recorded as a studio album that chronologically would have appeared between Blonde on Blonde and John Wesley Harding.
The hundreds of songs Dylan and the Band recorded in their makeshift studio Big Pink represented a significant shift in Dylan’s ever-expanding musical portfolio both compositionally and lyrically, coming up with quite a number of classics that are unsurpassed in their intricacy and quality to this day.
Besides the first official release of The Basement Tapes in 1975, later extended re-releases included only slightly altered remixes interspersed with material the Band recorded by themselves. Dylan only came up with a 14-song collection of the Big Pink material as a publishing set of demos for his Dwarf Music. A proper studio album of even selected material from the project never saw the light of the day.
1. The Beach Boys – Smile
If ever there was “an album that never was” which epitomized the phenomenon itself with all the elements that characterized such projects, it’s the never-properly-issued Beach Boys album Smile.
The album was set for release with everything ready to go including radio ads. But strange phenomena from recording sessions involving participants lying on the studio floor with candles in their hands to string sections wearing fire helmets during the recording of the intended “Fire” theme (with an actual fire breaking out at one point across the street from the studio) led to Brian Wilson suffering a nervous breakdown and destroying already recorded tapes. Additionally, the rest of the band was dissatisfied with the project, especially Van Dyke Parks’ lyrics, and a proper song list never came together.
All these aspects bring into doubt whether the album itself was truly formed as a unified statement to begin with. Of course, the masterpiece that is “Good Vibrations” came out of these sessions with a few other tracks also being released in the late ’60s, particularly on 1967’s Smiley Smile. Additionally, Brian Wilson prepared a re-worked and re-recorded version of the original project in 2004, which stands as the closest work we have to the original intent. Finally, The Smile Sessions released in 2011 provided fans with original material and outtakes previously unreleased. To this day, the quality and musical span of the original material that reached the public ears throughout the decades has prompted a true cult following of the album that so far has resulted in more than 20 different versions of the album constructed by its most devoted fans.
For most of the artists involved in these forgotten albums, their botched projects might be remembered as terrible nightmares. However, for the devoted fans who love the mystery, they certainly seem to be the sweetest of dreams.